'Downton Abbey' Season 3: Hugh Bonneville on Shirley MacLaine and the show as a drama versus soap

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hugh-bonneville-downton-abbey-season-3.jpg "Downton Abbey" returns for its third season Sunday evening (Jan. 6) and it brings with it a wonderful new character in the form of Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora's American mother. Star Hugh Bonneville dishes to Zap2it about how his character gets on with his mother-in-law.

"Any married man who hears the words your mother-in-law is coming to stay, that does strike an arrow of dread into the heart," laughs Bonneville. "In character terms, she's the mother of her daughter. Cora, relative to a character like Robert, is a complete free spirit. Martha Levinson is very much the mother of her daughter. She has forward-thinking values, relative to the Downton stock."

Those forward-thinking ways definitely cause a stir within the household.

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"She's like a little hurricane," says Bonneville. "But ultimately, one of my favorite scenes of the series is one I do with her where you realize she's far shrewder than you may think. Much like Maggie Smith's character -- underneath the grandeur, there's a very smart, thinking woman."

"On a professional level," Bonneville continues, "it was just amazing to have her and Maggie side by side. Two great dames of our industry."

It is things like the inclusion of such acting giants that fuel the debate as to whether "Downton" is a drama or a soap opera. Some of that may be the U.K. to U.S. translation, as Bonneville and Zap2it discuss whether or not "soap opera" is a derogatory term.

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"I think it's certainly got elements of soap," says Bonneville, acknowledging that soaps in the U.K. are a bit different from the U.S. "Soaps are the biggest watched shows in Britain, I don't think 'soap' is a derogatory term at all. If 'Downton' is a soap, it's a good one. It's an expensive one! [ laughs]."

"I think what it's done, whether consciously or unconsciously, is combine the very best elements of long-form drama format and a soap," Bonneville concludes. "There is a sense of it being something for everyone. This show is made with a huge amount of love and I think that comes across on screen. If it's got an element of soap in it, that's terrific."

"Downton Abbey" returns to the U.S. airwaves Sunday, Jan. 6 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on PBS.
Photo/Video credit: Getty Images